Review: The Mabinogion

TW: rape.

Oh, do we have to talk about The Mabinogion?

Even though it’s 8pm and I’m going on holiday in the wee hours of Friday morning and there’s still a million things I haven’t done?

Well, fine. If you insist.

Probably the first thing I should say here is that the sum total of what I know about the original Mabinogion – the Welsh story cycle whose closest analogue is probably Arthurian mythology – comes from reading Alan Garner’s The Owl Service and not enjoying it much. So I can say pretty much nothing about what Evangeline Walton has done to the tales – what she’s removed or added or emphasised. Which is a pity, really, because looking at an author’s sources is the quickest way of discovering what they’re trying to do.

Anyway. Walton’s The Mabinogion is actually an omnibus containing four novels: Prince of Annwn, in which a prince called Pwyll ventures into Death’s land to vanquish a terrible enemy of humanity and of the world; The Children of Llyr, in which a malcontent stirs up a devastating war between Britain and Ireland; The Song of Rhiannon, which sees a king trying to break a curse that’s fallen on his land; and The Island of the Mighty, which like The Owl Service retells the tale of Blodeuwedd, a woman made out of flowers and given to a British prince to be his wife, with predictably awful results.

So there’s a lot going on: it’s 700 pages long, after all, and it has politics and war and grief, and trickster figures who live by their wits and bards and riddles and rash promises, and heartbreak and treachery and fear and humour and joy and hope.

But it’s also not an exaggeration, I think, to say that the whole thing is in part a discussion of gender. Throughout their various high-jinks, their magic tricks and their battles and their quests, the novels dramatise a clash between the Old Tribes, whose people, male and female, sleep with whoever they like (well, they’re all straight, but you can’t expect everything from novels written in the 1930s) and leave when they’ve had enough, and the New Tribes, who have discovered how babies are made (I’m serious) and have therefore invented marriage as a way of controlling women and consequently male lineage, and virginity is a concept, and therefore so is rape, and basically the New Tribes are shit.

(It’s pretty clear, too, that Walton thought much of this was true: the idea of a sexually promiscuous Celtic society giving way to a patriarchal one was fashionable in the 18th and 19th centuries, according to Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge, and she footnotes her sources several times throughout the book.)

I spent a lot of energy trying to “solve” The Mabinogion. Is it “good” because it’s sex-positive for both male and female characters and because it sees consent as essential (which is not a given in early twentieth century literature, sadly)? Or is it “bad” because none of its female characters have the kind of reality its male characters have, and because it has a rape scene whose repercussions are more about the perpetrators than the victim, and because it sees all women as mothers at heart?

The answer, of course, is “both” (there’s a brilliant essay here by China Mieville about how culture is oppressive precisely because it’s flexible enough to accommodate both sides of a binary) and “neither” (from a critical standpoint, it’s a product of its culture with no intrinsic moral value). What’s interesting – or, rather, troubling – is why I put all that effort into coming up with a value judgement. I think there’s a lot of pressure – fuelled, undoubtedly, by the blessing and curse that is Twitter – in progressive pop culture to “solve” a text, to be able to label it objectively problematic, in which case everyone who ever reads it and enjoys it is a terrible person, or objectively progressive, in which case you are allowed to read it and express your love for it. I’m guilty of this myself: everyone who expresses admiration for Stephen Moffat’s work on Doctor Who is instantly suspect in my book, for instance, and I’m not even joking about that. There are good reasons why this is so: we’re all anxious about being aware of our cultural biases and making sure that what we recommend to others isn’t going to harm them and listening to minorities when they say their representation isn’t good enough. And those are all good things to hold in our heads. But, sometimes (just sometimes), I think we close down discussion and dialogue in favour of easy answers. That’s a problem because we live in a problematic culture, and so every product of that culture is going to be itself problematic, and labelling just some texts as problematic erases the wider context that created them.

(By the way, that Mieville article says everything I’m trying to say, only much, much better.)

This is a rather wide digression from The Mabinogion itself, which just goes to show how (not) engrossed I was in that text during the interminable three weeks I was stuck in it. (By way of comparison, I can usually read a book in 4-5 days.) I bounced hard off the representation of women here, and that stopped me from enjoying pretty much anything else in the book. That’s an un-nuanced reaction, and one which, yes, stems from the labelling impulse I’ve just talked about, and maybe if I read it again I’d find other things to value about it (as Kari Sperring does at Strange Horizons). For instance: I think there’s probably something interesting to be said about how Walton repurposes these Welsh legends to talk to wider Anglophone culture (Walton was American). In The Mabinogion, she takes up the function of myth, which is to tell us something about our place in the world, in a profoundly feminist cause; her thesis is that we came to be here, inhabitants of a misogynist culture heading rapidly towards ecological collapse, because of patriarchy. Which I agree with, partially, and it’s something I want to admire (especially given when these novels were first written, which I cannot emphasise enough), but…and here we are again.

And – well, I’m not at university any more. I don’t have to spend three weeks of my precious reading time trying to suck meaning from a text that’s actively annoying me.

I hope, though, that if I find myself talking to someone who’s read it as well (which seems vastly unlikely, but you never know) I’ll actually have a discussion, with listening instead of labelling.


Review: Provenance

While Ann Leckie’s Provenance is technically a standalone novel, it’s set in the same universe as Leckie’s Ancillary series, which obviously invites comparisons – and not necessarily favourable ones.

More about that in a minute. The planet on which Provenance is set, Hwae, lies far away from Radch space, where the Ancillary trilogy is set; it’s a human culture that recognises three genders, and which lies very close to the planet of the Geck, one of the three sentient alien races in Leckie’s universe, incomprehensible and thus terrifying. Our Heroine is Ingray Aughskold, a young woman adopted into a high-ranking family, who frees a high-security prisoner convicted of forging valuable historical artefacts as part of a plan to outmanoeuvre her brother in a bid to be named her mother’s heir.

(Yes. It’s one of those novels.)

Of course, things go horribly wrong, and instead of playing an admittedly fairly high-stakes game of family power politics, Ingray finds herself at the centre of a murder case: an ambassador from a nearby planet with an interest in controlling trade access to Hwae is found stabbed in a public park, killed while Ingray was feet away.

And, for a good half of the novel, it feels like that’s what Leckie’s serving us: a murder mystery wreathed in complex alien politics. But Provenance has an odd double structure: the murder mystery winds itself up sooner than we think it will, and we find once more that there’s something a lot more serious going on, something that threatens the delicate treaty that prevents the Geck and, more importantly, the infinitely violent and infinitely alien race the Presger, from waging war on humanity, and vice versa.

That double structure is key to what the novel’s doing, I think. Provenance pares away almost all of the action and adventure of the Ancillary trilogy, to leave only Leckie’s interest in politics and etiquette and how people navigate the power structures they find themselves enmeshed in. In other words, to me Provenance is essentially concerned with identity politics: how people construct and perform themselves. There is a focus on things that SFF readers might be used to thinking of as trivial: on clothes, on interior space (parts of the novel take place on a spaceship, and Leckie is meticulous in describing how the characters move around each other in the narrow corridors), on food. Hwae society places great stock in “vestiges”, historical artefacts related to family history – the authenticity or otherwise of these drives the plot at several key moments. There’s a moment when a character calls out the press for refusing to use the name ey’ve chosen for emself:

you all flew here from the capital this morning so you could shout questions at me in person, but you can’t bring yourself to use the name I want to go by

There’s a whole storyline about a character identifying himself as Geck (though he looks human, the Geck do have hangers-on who are genetically altered humans) and what that means legally. And so on. Identity politics: not just how we create identities for ourselves, but specifically how we perform and negotiate them with others, and how the choices we make when we’re with other people are always loaded, always political. Provenance dramatises that slogan of second-wave feminism, “the personal is political”.

And so, that double structure is asking us to look twice at everything we see. A murder that looks personal is deeply political. Choices that look personal – how we dress, how we name ourselves, what we eat – are deeply political.

It’s always worth asking: why this genre? In this instance, why does Provenance need to be SF? What would it lose by not being SF?

It’s important, I think, that the culture(s?) we encounter in Provenance is (are?) an alien one; not alien in the SFnal sense but in the sense that it runs on different rules, and that, crucially, those are rules we have to figure out as we go along. That work of, essentially, reverse engineering the rules of a culture from how people act within it is work that estranges our own culture from us; like the novel’s double structure, Provenance teaches us to re-read the world, to pay attention to the myriad lines of power and influence that underlie even our most mundane interactions.

This is all brilliant and fascinating and (that overused word) timely, of course, and I really enjoyed Provenance (although I can’t honestly say I grasped all the intricacies of the interplanetary politics). But: it does just feel a little less urgent than the Ancillary trilogy, which dealt with issues like slavery and bodily autonomy and imperialism – grappling with the idea of power in a much more direct way. Provenance feels like a step back into provincialism. It’s very far from bad. But neither is it mind-blowing.

Review: Everfair

It would be interesting to compare Nisi Shawl’s alt-historical novel Everfair with the Broadway musical Hamilton. It’s not a comparison I’m going to go into in great detail here, because I only just thought of it, but: both works are trying to make space in history, and in narratives of nation-building, for people of colour. Two interesting things come out of this comparison: firstly, that Everfair does this less problematically and more honestly than Hamilton does; secondly, I still like Hamilton a whole lot more than I like Everfair. (Given how much I like Hamilton, this isn’t actually as much of an insult as it sounds.)

So. Everfair is a “what-if” novel, set against the horrific backdrop of the Belgian King Leopold II’s exploitation of the Congo Free State in the late 1800s and early 1900s – a period of perhaps twenty years during which, historians estimate, up to ten million people died as a result of Leopold’s insatiable greed for rubber.

Shawl asks: what if a group of British socialists had got together with a group of African-American missionaries to buy a parcel of land in the Congo and set up a new country there – the eponymous Everfair – a haven for refugees from Leopold’s atrocities?

The resulting novel is a series of short chapters told from the points of view of eleven different characters, ranging from the white middle-class English housewife Daisy Albin – who also happens to be Everfair’s national poet – and her mixed-race female lover Lisette, through the African-American Christian missionary Thomas Jefferson Wilson, who gradually becomes assimilated into the local religion, to King Mwenda, ruler of the territory bought by the European founders of Everfair, who enters into an uneasy alliance with them. Each chapter jumps forward in time, by as little as a week or as much as a year. So we are given a series of short vignettes, almost, that together build a picture of the founding of Everfair, from early in Leopold’s reign of terror to the end of the First World War.

It’s exactly this multiplicity of voices, this fragmentation, that makes Everfair, and Everfair, what it is. The Europeans and their African-American allies see a potential utopia in Everfair; but those eleven points of view show us exactly how much of a contested issue utopia is. The missionaries want to spend charitable donations on Bibles and religious material to convert the local people and the refugees. The socialists, broadly speaking, abhor religion, and want to build Everfair along modern socialist lines. King Mwenda wants his traditions to be respected, and for the settlers to remember that Everfair was originally his land, sold out from under him by the Belgian government.

And so on. All of these people are playing politics with each other; all of them have broadly the same goal – a peaceful life under a fair government – even if they have widely differing interests and worldviews. (One of the most interesting things about Everfair is how it treats science and magic – as exactly that, different worldviews, equally valid. The airships that feature so prominently in the economic development of Everfair are built by science; the heaters that keep them aloft run on magic and traditional belief. Doctors in Everfair’s hospitals use modern medicines to keep patients alive; King Mwenda and Thomas Jefferson Wilson are both told things by their gods and ancestors that they could not possibly know rationally.) The novel takes no sides: each character’s point of view is valid. And so we see how messy the work of nation-building is, how ideologically fraught it is from the start, a tangle of compromises and conflicts that means nobody quite gets what they want, but everyone gets as good a result as they can. Everfair is a novel about people working together, productively if not always harmoniously, to build a society that includes everyone. It’s not utopia. It’s not perfect (because the world is not perfect). There are crises and there are moral compromises. But we get the sense that, mostly, it’s the best anyone can do.

Why don’t I like it more, then?

Partly, I think it’s a case of mismatched expectations. The novel calls itself steampunk; from the “Historical Note” at the beginning of the book:

The steampunk genre often works as a form of alternative history, showing us how small changes to what actually happened might have resulted in momentous differences: clockwork Victorian-era computers, commercial transcontinental dirigible lines, and a host of other wonders. This is that kind of book.

See, I think this gets steampunk wrong. For me, a vital part of steampunk is a transgressive sense of playfulness; it knows, fundamentally, that no Victorian was ever a steampunk, that it is impossible except in modernity. It is constantly winking at its audience to let them know that its ahistoricity is deliberate, and fun, and a little bit ridiculous. That’s not to say that steampunk can’t do serious things; just that what it’s doing usually has little to do with history. Steampunk, at heart, is playing meta games with its audience.

Whereas Everfair is anything but playful. I read it fast, travelling home by train after Christmas, and it resisted me every step of the way. It’s a novel that demands to be taken seriously, to be read slowly and with great attention to detail. Look at that “Historical Note”; the three-page list of “Some Notable Characters” at the beginning of the novel (only some); the detailed, serious-looking map, not at all like a fantasy map. From the “Historical Note” again:

Of course steampunk is a form of fiction, a fantasy, and the events within these pages never happened. But they could have.

As I’ve said above, the function of steampunk is precisely not to say “this could have happened”. That’s the function of alt-history. Everfair is really alt-history. Its project is to create a space in Western historical fiction for people of colour as participants in nation-building. Its project is to bring an under-studied and terrible interlude in recent European history to the attention of readers who at best only know it through reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness at university once – and to do so in a way that casts people of colour as more than victims.

To be clear: this is important work, and I think it’s work that Everfair does very well – I don’t want to diminish that. I also think that the novel is basically all worldbuilding, in M. John Harrison’s sense: despite its multivocalism, it’s not a novel that leaves much space for interpretation or exploration (although, I suspect, every reader will empathise with different characters – I spent a lot of time rooting for Lisette and willing Daisy to realise how racist she was being). As a reader, I prefer baggier, more playful novels; steampunk novels, not alt-history ones. But that’s on me, not the book.

Top Ten Things I Hate in Fictional Romances

I rarely ship fictional characters, because I rarely ever read a fictional romance I find convincing. Not uncoincidentally, pretty much all of these are things I dislike about fictional het romances, because so many of our cultural norms for het romances are warped and coercive and, frankly, really fucking weird.

  1. Where creepy and/or abusive behaviours are “romantic”. This includes: watching strangers sleep, entering their space without permission, and pretty much anything that has to be justified by the phrase “it’s for your own good”. Oh, hello Twilight!
  2. Where the (female) love interest is a prize for the (male) protagonist. As in, for example, the dishearteningly popular Ready Player One. DON’T DO THAT. (If we’re gonna be intellectual about it, this is a layover from 12th-century chivalric ideals of knights fighting each other for the hand of The Most Beautiful Woman Ever. It’s objectification, pure and simple.)
  3. Where a supernatural(ly hot) woman pronounces her love interest The Kindest Man In The World. This is a good sign that the novel (which may or may not be Jim C. Hines’ Libriomancer) is not actually interested in the woman as a person: it’s just male fantasy, of the Nice Guy variety.
  4. Where No Really Means Yes. I fucking hate it when persistence makes a love interest change their mind, because what kind of message does that send? (Remember Mr Collins from Pride and PrejudiceNobody deserves that.)
  5. Where a woman Just Needs A Man to settle down and stop being so uppity and weird and unfeminine. *cough*Eowyn*cough* Ooh! Also Bella in Our Mutual Friend.
  6. Where there is a significant age gap. I mean, this is particularly a problem when there are literal centuries between the couple (Twilight again! But also the elf-human relationships in The Silmarillion). But I also can’t get past May-December romances in things like Parable of the Sower, where a godsdamn fifty-year-old man sleeps with an eighteen-year-old girl (even consensually).
  7. Where a woman stays at home while her love interest has awesome adventures. Enough said.
  8. Where a man makes his love interest shelter behind him even if he has clearly never fought anything ever. Except in some historical or historical fantasy novels, ’cause men were shitty in the past.
  9. Where there is an angel in the house. Basically, all of Dickens’ women. They are saintly, altruistic, good at household chores and, generally, boring. And utterly fictional.
  10. Where the queer couple dies. N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season is as awesome as you have heard; but it does destroy an awesome queer relationship (along with a lot of other things). The wider point is that: queer people almost never get decent fictional relationships, because we all lead Tragic and Unfulfilled lives, obviously.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Doctor Who Review: Twice Upon a Time

Twice Upon a Time was 2017’s Christmas episode of Doctor Who, and, glory be, Stephen Moffat’s last episode ever. I remember astonishingly little of it.

I remember that the First Doctor was in it, because Stephen Moffat liked to fuck around with Doctor Who mythology for no discernible or interesting purpose. (Oooh, but using the past tense just then felt so good.) I remember the First Doctor being outrageously and obviously sexist, for, as Andrew Rilstone points out, no internal narrative reason: this isn’t an episode that’s interested in the history of the Doctor, it’s interested in the history of Doctor Who, and TV was outrageously and obviously sexist in the 60s, and so the First Doctor is sexist. This all feels like Moffat’s final dig at those pesky feminists who pointed out time after time that his female characters are always enigmas, romantic interests, cyphers with no lives of their own – anything but fully human. “Look,” he says, “this is what real sexism looks like! I’m much more enlightened than this!”

To which the only possible response is: fuck off.

Or, more politely: if you have to go back to the 1960s to find stories more sexist than yours, you’re doing something wrong.

What else? The World War I Christmas truce, “it never happened again, any war, anywhere”. (For what it’s worth, this isn’t actually true: there were Christmas truces in 1915, and unofficial truces up and down the front throughout the year.) Rusty the Good Dalek, for no discernible reason. An invisible glass woman. A project to record the memories of the dead, which goes nowhere interesting. Yet another fucking suggestion that Bill is romantically interested in the Twelfth Doctor. And the appearance of the Thirteenth Doctor, crashing the TARDIS as is traditional, and causing a tsunami of “women driver” jokes among the misogynists of the world.

The human brain’s wired to retain narrative; the reason why I end up writing more about plot than anything else is because that’s what I remember a month or two after I read or watched or heard whatever I’m writing about. That I can only remember fragments of Twice Upon a Time therefore suggests something about its approach to narrative; viz., that it has none.

Moffat’s never really been interested in stories as such, the work of plot you have to put in to reach the climax, the building of emotional investment you need to get to the payoff. He’s interested in set pieces, in gimmicks, in moments like snowglobes; in pretty pictures. And, in that sense, Twice Upon a Time is Quintessentially Moffat.

I think, structurally, what the episode’s trying to suggest is that the Twelfth Doctor will always exist somewhere in time, as will the First Doctor, like a picture, or, indeed, a TV show. A frozen and asynchronous now. Ceasing to be in the future does not negate your being now. This is an idea that’s always been latent in Doctor Who, and, indeed, in most time travel narratives which see the past and the future as places you can visit at will. If people who have died still live, in a place you can access, have they really died at all?

And it’s an interesting idea. Of course it is, to us humans who live in the flow of time and always want to escape it. It’s just that Moffat-Who is not especially capable of dealing with it in any kind of profound way. After all, the analogy between regeneration and death only goes back to David Tennant’s time on the show; before that, the emphasis is on the beginning of a new life, not the end of an old one. Moffat fails to make a case for why it’s so important that the Twelfth Doctor’s memory sticks around; he’s consistently failed, in other words, to build our interest in, and empathy with, the character, because he’s consistently failed to tell stories.

You cannot build a story out of set-pieces. You cannot build a character out of moments.

Let us hope for better things from Chris Chibnall and Jodie Whitaker.

Review: The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness feels like an older generation’s Ancillary Justice.

I say that partly because it’s a good first sentence that makes me sound like a more seasoned SF reviewer than I actually am, and partly because, like Ancillary Justice, a lot of the discussion that goes on around The Left Hand of Darkness focuses on its approach to gender to the exclusion of much else that’s important and interesting about it.

Its premise is simple enough: Genly Ai is an ambassador to the icy planet of Gethen (Winter, in the language of its inhabitants) from the Ekumen, a confederacy of worlds. Most of the time, the Gethenians are gender-neutral and biologically intersex; but for about a week every month they go into kemmer, becoming either biologically male or biologically female, depending on what other nearby people in kemmer are doing. Kemmer, it seems, is mainly spent having sex with all and sundry: there are monogamous couples on Gethen, but it’s by no means the norm. And, of course, any one Gethenian can sire and bear children (although not, presumably, at the same time).

The novel follows Genly (whose society has the same gender norms as ours – more on that later) as he navigates the politics of the two major Gethenian nations, Orgoreyn and Karhide, in an attempt to bring the planet into the Ekumen. His efforts – his very presence, in fact – threaten to destabilise the fragile balance between the powers and topple the planet into war – a concept that’s entirely new to Gethen, because its societies have never developed ideas of toxic masculinity that’s performed through large-scale aggression.

So. What I find most interesting about The Left Hand of Darkness is how it uses language to construct a world that’s very different from ours – not just in terms of gender, but in general outlook and philosophy. I don’t mean by that the mundane work of worldbuilding that most SFF authors engage in, but a much more potent and challenging semantic slippage, a textual instability that evokes a world that is always already irrevocably changing.

The novel is told from multiple perspectives, in other words. So we have Genly’s report on his mission (although, “I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination” – from the very first lines a gap is growing between observer and observed, between narrated experience and unmediated “reality”); notes from the diary of a Karhide politician called Estraven, who’s trying to push his reluctant country into a new age; ethnological notes from the Ekumen’s first clandestine mission to Gethen; and a series of Gethenian myths and legends. That’s four views of Gethen, overlapping, jostling for factual and emotional primacy; each of them with different priorities, different focuses, different assumptions, different prejudices. Their conflicting clamour distorts the edges of what we can know about Gethen (especially in later chapters, when we get different versions of the same events from Genly and Estraven); but it also serves to give us a better picture of what Gethen is like than an omniscient narrator can. Gethen, like all real societies, is constantly rewriting itself. It never stays still, it’s never just one thing. What was once true is always, almost by definition, now untrue. Genly’s arrival on the planet, and his message of Ekumenical peace and love, has exacerbated this process somewhat; it’s a society on the cusp of great change, and this clamour of voices is a particularly apt way of evoking that textually.

And so, onto some problems with The Left Hand of Darkness. (In all fairness, it was first published in 1969. It would be practically impossible for it not to have some problems.) The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed the most glaring one: the use of male pronouns to describe the gender-neutral Gethenians.

This is partly an effect of semantic slippage, the gap between author and protagonist that helps to create the world of Gethen more fully. Put less pretentiously, Genly is enormously, outrageously misogynist.

The [Gethenian] guards…tended to be stolid, slovenly, heavy, and to my eyes effeminate – not in the sense of delicacy, etc., but in just the opposite sense: a gross, bland fleshiness, a bovinity without point or edge.

Yes, that’s right: Genly thinks women are cows. Le Guin was a strident feminist; these are assuredly not her views.

So we can, if we so wish, argue that the novel’s use of “he” as a universal pronoun is Genly’s use, not Le Guin’s; a reflection of the sexist strategies he uses to construct his world and his own experience. (Remember: this is a novel that’s deliberately placing emphasis on the truth-value of experience.) But, still, I think we run into a problem with the fact that all of the narratives use male pronouns to describe the Gethenians, who surely have their own pronouns. We can speculate that Genly’s translated these narratives (although: not the ethnological reports, which I think were written by women from Genly’s society), and so they’re also subject to his construction (as they assuredly are anyway, per that first sentence), but I don’t think this is speculation that goes anywhere, and at some point along that line of speculation the gap between protagonist and author narrows to a width so tiny it’s not worth mentioning any more. Which is to say: the universal male pronoun is ultimately an authorial choice, no matter the semantic slippage that’s happening along the way. And it’s a problematic choice.

Ah, but: as I said at the beginning of this post, gender is only one of many things The Left Hand of Darkness is interested in. (And, for the record, I don’t think its treatment of gender is entirely problematic: it’s certainly always refreshing to read something that tries to reconstruct gender and sexual norms so thoroughly.) It’s also interested in duality, change, survival, politics, war, time, shared humanity; it’s a portrait of a world and a character and a relationship all at once. Above all, it’s dialectic, not didactic: it leaves space for conversation, contemplation, reinvention. I liked it. I’m glad I read it. That’s all; that’s enough.

Review: Libriomancer

This review contains spoilers.

Jim C. Hines’ Libriomancer has a premise calculated to appeal to every book lover ever: libriomancers are magicians who can summon objects to life from books. Not people, apparently, because their brains turn to mush. And not anything that wouldn’t fit through a hole the size of an open book. And really powerful objects that would ruin the world – like Tolkien’s Ring, for instance – are “locked” inside their books by the head libriomancer, Johannes Gutenberg (yes, the Gutenberg), who has apparently discovered the secret to eternal life and promptly locked it away again.

So. Our Hero is Isaac, an ex-libriomancer who was retired from the field after an attempt at reining in unauthorised libriomancy went horribly wrong. As the novel begins, he’s working in a library specialising in SFF, cataloguing books that contain potentially useful weapons for libriomancers. This may sound like the awesomest job in the world to us mere mortals, but of course Isaac misses magic. Luckily for him, some vampires rock up and attack the library he’s working in, as well as a number of prominent magic-users, and he’s pulled back into the field to try and work out why the vampires have broken their delicate peace with humanity.

It was probably inevitable that Libriomancer would disappoint me – a premise like that is fiendishly hard to live up to. I think my disappointment boils down to the fact that the novel doesn’t do very much with its various intertexts – that is, it’s not particularly self-aware about its status as an SFF text in explicit conversation with the SFF texts Isaac uses for his libriomancy. That’s partly because the rules of libriomancy, and the demands of the plot, don’t allow Isaac to summon anything much more interesting than fancy SFnal guns; and, diverting as the sudden appearance of a lightsaber is (even if Hines isn’t allowed to call it that because of copyright), it turns out that weapons look pretty much the same whichever novel you summon them from.

The one piece of literary criticism Libriomancer does indulge in felt vaguely problematic to me. Or, rather, it fell into that interesting mental category labelled “I don’t know what to do with this”. One of Isaac’s sidekicks is Lena, a dryad from what Hines describes as a subgenre of mild SFF 1960s erotica. (I don’t know if this is an actual thing, by the way, since I can’t remember the name of the author Hines name-checks. Let’s assume that it is for the purposes of this review.) Lena’s been written to be the perfect lover for whoever her romantic partner happens to be – so her appearance and her personality both change to suit them. (I can’t remember now why Lena is exempt from the brain-turning-to-mush that afflicts most fictional characters coming to the real world.) At the beginning of the novel, she’s in a relationship with a woman called Nidhi Shah, a therapist who’s kidnapped by the vampires. Believing Nidhi dead, Lena propositions Isaac (who, I got the impression, lives several hours’ drive from Nidhi), because – get this – she thinks he’s her best option.

Werl…Isaac is inoffensive enough, but for this literally perfect woman to stake her entire being on him as the best possible romantic partner feels like the most enormous wish-fulfilment fantasy – not to mention the tangled issues of consent and free will spiralling around here.

It turns out, of course, that Nidhi aten’t dead. But now Lena is magically attached to both of them! Whatever shall she do?

The answer is, in fact, unexpected, and probably the best way of dealing with an immensely problematic plotline: she shall date both of them (no, not in a threesome-orgy-male-fantasy type way), and so, being not quite perfect for either of them, find something like autonomy in the cracks between their desires.

I mean, I do appreciate this thinking outside the box of monogamous heterosexual romantic normativity. And I also appreciate that the point of Lena’s storyline is to point up how problematic the idea of “the perfect woman” is. I just think that this particular novel is not really up to handling it. For one thing, Isaac is incredibly creepy towards Lena: while slightly (but only slightly) uninhibited on truth drugs, he tells her (in front of one of her colleagues):

This is not how I used to fantasize about you turning up on my doorstep.

Uh…inappropriate much? And, however much Lena may appear to go along with this behaviour, she’s magically obliged to do so. Isaac’s creepiness never gets dealt with; I got the impression I was meant to read it as slightly inept flirting, which it is not.

Add to that the fact that Hines’ prose is serviceable at best and wincingly clumsy at worst, and that he seems more interested in explosions and vampires than in unpacking the intricacies of Lena’s situation, and it begins to feel like the romance subplot is something of an afterthought tacked onto the story Hines really wanted to tell. Essentially, there’s a lot in Libriomancer that demands significantly more attention than it ever gets; so everything feels underserved.

TL;DR: I shouldn’t read books that haven’t been recommended to me. Because usually there’s a reason why they haven’t.